By Chad Taylor
A safe work environment is the most important thing employers can provide for their employees. And just as an employer must ensure that his or her workspaces are up to various building and legal codes, it is paramount for HR departments to take the necessary steps to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace. Aside from the feeling of safety within the workplace, sexual harassment claims can cause huge damage to a company’s bottom line. In 2014, companies paid out $93.9 million to settle sexual harassment claims and an additional $35 million in damages.
However, a number of steps can be taken to ensure that sexual harassment claims are treated seriously, fairly and promptly.
All supervisors should be trained to report employee complaints to HR immediately. Supervisors often mistakenly suggest that complaining employees have the responsibility of reporting the problem to HR themselves. This can lead to employee frustration and a feeling that their supervisors do not value their concerns. When that occurs, the interests of both the employee and the employer are compromised because the complaint isn’t promptly investigated or even addressed at all in some cases.
Be aware of all Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) guidelines. If an employee is terminated over a sexual harassment complaint and decides to contest the ruling through the courts, his or her attorney will look very closely at the evaluation procedure to see if your company violated any of the guidelines laid out by the EEOC. Be sure that your HR department has familiarized itself with the guidelines, available at www.eeoc.gov/policy/docs/harassment.html, before conducting any internal investigations.
Thoroughly document everything. Treat every sexual harassment investigation under the assumption that the results will someday be presented as evidence in court. Keep a written record of every person interviewed, log every phone call or email sent, and have witnesses write out their testimony in as great of detail as possible. Then have them sign the finished document afterward.
Take interim measures during the investigation to mitigate the situation. For most sexual harassment investigations, the EEOC recommends separating the employee who lodged the complaint from the accused employee for the duration of the investigation. This may be as simple as relocating one employee’s desk or revising a schedule to adjust one employee’s hours.
But be careful of retaliation. When separating employees, be careful not to unduly reduce one employee’s hours, or dramatically increase one employee’s workload, or involuntarily transfer an employee to a different job or department. All of the above can be construed as retaliation and could be grounds for a lawsuit.
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